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Music Review

Bartok’s nightscapes for string quartet, illuminated from within

The Takács Quartet played three Bartok quartets at Jordan Hall.


The Takács Quartet played three Bartok quartets at Jordan Hall.

In the universe of chamber music, the six string quartets of Bela Bartok seem to occupy their own planet, one with a gravitational pull perhaps more akin to a white dwarf. One might hear these works as efforts to capture, and in the process transmute, a series of multiple vanishing worlds: an era of authentic regional folk music Bartok knew was disappearing from the countryside around him, a warmly burning 19th-century Romantic expressivity he felt keenly but realized could not stand untouched by the convulsions of the modern world, and the swirling currents of the 20th-century avant-garde that in these searingly original scores comes to appear like its own authentic folk tradition.

All of that said, it’s the rare performance that does not privilege any single strand in this music but allows you to feel its seamless integration, the building up of something far greater than the sum of its parts. Yet that’s precisely what the Takács Quartet gave its audiences on Friday night in Jordan Hall, when this veteran ensemble delivered spellbinding accounts of the Second, Fourth, and Sixth Quartets, completing the cycle it began last month in concerts presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

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The Takács has in the past performed this music right alongside Hungarian folk musicians exploring the native sources from which Bartok drew. This time, at Friday’s concert, there was no village folk band with them on the stage so the Takács players simply chose to channel that ensemble too. This was particularly true for the middle movement of the Second Quartet, dispatched here with a rustic earthiness and visceral physicality that made the drivingly rhythmic passages leap off the stage.

The Fourth Quartet, a piece that greatly enlarges the sound world of the entire set, is built on a vast arch-like structure, with its central keystone movement a kind of deep-breathing night song taken up by each instrument in turn. The Takács here made it sound like the keening lament of an ancient avant-garde. It was contrasted by the hushed, hurtling second-movement prestissimo that here became a riveting study in shadows, and the finale driven home with a ferocity unmatched and exhilarating.

The ambiguous Sixth Quartet of 1939 only rarely channels the savage intensities of the Fourth, instead suggesting a composer’s melancholy, retrospective visions from the edge of the European abyss. The music of the opening bars seems to pull itself reluctantly into being, and the final movement does not so much conclude as return to its origins, a kind of silence lit from within.

The Takács here once more delivered a sensitive and subtle account, alert to the music’s flinty modern edges but also dedicated to the warmth of its 19th-century roots. These days nearly all string quartets perform the music in this cycle, but very few render its primal rhythms and landscapes of strange crepuscular beauty like this one does. That is, with what feels like the singularly assured cadences of a mother tongue.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler
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